How many times have you read the pamphlet that comes with your prescription medication? Never? Or maybe you have just skimmed it and read about the side effects. Most of us feel safe taking prescription drugs because they are legal. Additionally, if a doctor prescribes them, they can’t be that addictive, can they?
Doesn’t prescription drug addiction just happen to people that deliberately abuse certain medications? Typically recreational use of opioids, pain-killing medicines, anti-anxiety drugs, sedatives, and stimulants involves taking high doses in one go. Users often crush tablets or open capsules to snort or inject the medication to enhance and speed up the effects. This swiftly leads to addiction to prescription drugs.
However, research indicates that even if you take a prescribed medication exactly as intended, there is still a risk of addiction. This is because these medications change the way the brain functions. When you stop taking them, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms drive you to take them again, even if you no longer need them for the initial reason they were prescribed. This is more common when you take medication regularly over a long period, especially with opioids and painkillers for chronic long-term pain.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has classified the three highest abused classes of prescription drugs:
Opioids — Opioid painkillers such as codeine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone are all prescribed for short and long-term chronic pain. Oxycodone is sold under the brand name Oxycontin, recently featured in a series called Dopesick on Disney plus. Due to misleading data about the addictive properties of Oxycontin, it caused an opioid epidemic of addicts when it was first marketed and prescribed. Oxycontin now has a black box warning to indicate that it is highly addictive. However, all opioids, even over-the-counter medications such as Solphadine, have the potential to cause addiction when used long-term.
Opioids can produce feelings of well-being and pleasure. The effects can vary from mild to intense, depending on the quantity taken and how they are consumed. Opioids are easy to abuse even if they have been prescribed. It can be tempting to take an extra one if you are in a lot of pain. Opioids are also taken illegally, snorted, or injected to speed up their effects. When abused this way, the potential to develop an addiction increases. However, over time taking more opioid medication than you have been instructed to by a doctor or pharmacist can also lead to addiction.
Benzodiazepines such as alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), or diazepam (Valium) are prescribed for short-term use to help treat muscle spasms, anxiety, insomnia, and other types of sleep disorders. Probably the most well-known abused benzodiazepine, valium was the most prescribed drug in the US from 1969 to 1982. People abuse valium because of its ability to help you to relax and feel calm.
Barbiturates (BZDs or benzos) such as amobarbital (Amytal), pentobarbital (Nembutal), phenobarbital (Luminal), and secobarbital (Seconal) are prescribed to treat seizures. As with Benzodiazepines, barbiturates are abused because they help you to feel calm and relaxed. Suddenly stopping long-term use of barbiturates can cause withdrawal seizures and fatality.
Stimulants such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, Dextrostat, ProCentra), methylphenidate (Concerta, Daytrana, Methylin, Ritalin), and Adderall are prescribed for various conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and narcolepsy. They are abused to feel more alert and energised and improve concentration and function without sleep.
Physical Dependence And Addiction To Prescription Drugs
Prescription drugs can alter the brain’s structure — even when taken as instructed. When abused, the increased release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, teaches the brain to repeat this behaviour, leading to cravings, physical dependence, and addiction.
Tolerance builds up the more a drug is taken, and withdrawal symptoms result from how drug addiction changes your brain. These changes remain even after you stop taking prescription medication. In severe cases of addiction to opioids, you can feel like you are dying if you don’t get more of the drug.
Common signs of addiction to prescription drugs include:
- Not taking drugs as instructed, such as taking more than the prescribed dose or crushing and snorting medication
- Taking drugs for the way they make you feel
- Mood swings from feeling happy to agitated and aggressive
- Sleep disturbances
- Requesting additional prescriptions to replace “lost” medication or obtaining the same prescription from more than one doctor
- Prioritising taking prescription drugs and neglecting other responsibilities
- Putting yourself and others in danger when taking prescription medications.
Prescription Drugs And Overdose
Opioids cause most deaths from prescription drug overdose. However, an overdose of any prescription drug can be life-threatening. Mixing opioids, benzodiazepines, or barbiturates with alcohol also increases the potential of an overdose and death.
Fatality from an overdose is generally due to taking a large amount of a prescription drug. Mixing opioids, benzodiazepines, or barbiturates with alcohol or other substances, such as cocaine, also increases the potential for an overdose and death. The most common cause of death from an overdose of prescription drugs is respiratory depression (breathing difficulties).
If you are concerned about your prescription drug use or that of someone you know, it is vital to address it as early as possible. If you don’t want to speak to your GP, you can seek advice from the FRANK drugs helpline on 0300 123 6600.